Exploring the art of prose


Tag: Chiaroscuro

Author’s Note

If there’s a singular craft term for weaving together humor and pathos, I didn’t learn it in school. I’ve always been drawn to storylines that play with the balance between light and dark, and in writing an essay about being institutionalized—practically bald and visibly queer in a Missouri psych ward where I was referred to as “it”—I knew I needed to build in some oases for my readers to recognize the absurdity (and sometimes, even humor) of it all.

In asking several of my friends and colleagues for help defining this term, they first suggested “dark humor,” but that term didn’t feel fully right to me. When I explained I saw my humor as little pockets throughout the essay, they suggested “tragicomic,” which put me in mind of Alison Bechdel’s masterpiece Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, but this term seemed more suited for the stage. One friend suggested “transcendence,” and another suggested “Cooperistic” after the writer Bernard Cooper. In visual art, we call this phenomenon chiaroscuro: “an effect of contrasted light and shadow created by light falling unevenly or from a particular direction on something.” Maybe chiaroscuro is the closest I will get to describing the effect I’ve tried to create in “Bus Stop.” Maybe naming it is beside the point and feeling it is what’s important.

The simultaneous presence of light and dark puts me in mind of a book by Kate DiCamillo that I first read in fifth grade. At the time, I had a structural abnormality in my feet that caused immense pain and I had to walk with orthopedic shoes and a wooden cane. I was eager to dive into a world that was not my own to learn about Winn-Dixie, a homely stray dog named after the Southern grocery chain, who, when adopted by a girl my age and her single father, caused an uproarious chain of events in their small town. I laughed deeply as DiCamillo carried me from the joyous passages into the sorrowful ones. I felt, maybe for the first time, the power of what literature could do. I still think about the girl in those pages, my cane resting against my bed as I was reading, and this quotation: “I lay there and thought how life was like a Littmus Lozenge, how the sweet and the sad were all mixed up together and how hard it was to separate them out. It was confusing…. I got up out of bed and unwrapped a Littmus Lozenge and sucked on it hard and thought about my mama leaving me. That was a melancholy feeling.”

Most of my essay, “Bus Stop,” is a “melancholy feeling,” and particularly the ending, but it’s also true to life. It is, after all, my experience living in my body, and my head—a head that pulses with creativity, and light, and imagination, but also causes immense suffering that I’ll spend my life trying to get down on paper.


GABE MONTESANTI is the author of Brace for Impact: A Memoir (2022), which chronicles her time skating for Arch Rival Roller Derby. Gabe earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and studio art at Kalamazoo College and her MFA at Washington University in St. Louis. Her work has been published in places like HuffPost, Los Angeles Times, Literary Hub, Creative Nonfiction, Electric Literature, and Brevity. She has been granted artist residencies from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, Nebraska, and Storyknife Writers Retreat in Homer, Alaska. In 2023, she captured the inaugural title of Mx. Pride St. Louis and is at work on a second memoir about her time performing drag. Find her on Instagram at @gabemontesantiauthor.